The assumption that the atmosphere and our air in general can withstand continued emissions from automobiles, ships, aircraft and other forms, is no longer tenable. Air travel alone contributes huge amounts of carbon – creating greenhouse gases and global climate change. We can walk more, bicycle more, bus more, drive less. We can travel less by plane and use alternative forms of travel more.

However, we can’t stop what seems to be (due to climate change) an increase in winter storms and the debris left on the ground because of these storms. Left on the ground, this debris provides fire hazard as it dries in the summer months, and for some, perhaps many, provides an unsightly mess. Unfortunately, the ‘idea’ of what is ‘mess’ is culturally determined and to a large extent seems to be determined by Walmart and Home Depot advertisements.

Breathing wood smoke particles during high pollution days is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
—CVRD, Fact Sheet No.1

Air Quality

Burning slash and backyard debris in open burn fires contributes to the reduction in air quality. Wood burning, in general, releases carbon and a number of toxic chemicals into our air and the atmosphere. All of these contribute to poor air quality for those who have compromised respiratory systems, especially children’s developing lungs, and for those who consider themselves healthy, there is diminished air quality, and a reduction in the quality of life and health.

The issue seems quite straightforward. If we don’t want to continue to jeopardize the health of ourselves, the planet, and future generations, we will have to bring an end to burning slash and backyard debris. Many jurisdictions across Canada have already legislated such burning out of existence. However, there is often considerable resistance to eliminating backyard burning.

There is a long historical and cultural tradition and custom that surrounds such burning. People feel it is their right, and often are incredibly cheap about debris removal and garbage. Customs and historical traditions are the most difficult dynamics for all of us – especially regarding our environmental or ecological responsibilities. We are only, within the past five or so years, beginning to do real cost accounting, an accounting that analysis of our place in the environment, demands. Put simply, we can’t continue to violate the air, the ground, the sea and our fresh water, the way we have in the past. We need to breathe good clean air. We need good soil. We need good water. We can’t live without them. How does slash burning and backyard debris burning jeopardize our air, our health, and our quality of life?

Wood Smoke Hurts People

• Breathing wood smoke particles during high pollution days is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
• It has harmful gases – such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, dioxins, furans, benzo-a-pyrene, phenanthrene and acrolein, some of which are known to cause cancer.
• It worsens respiratory diseases like asthma, pneumonia, emphysema, and bronchitis.
• Between 1980 and 1990, hospitalization of young children in Canada for asthma increased by 28 per cent among boys and 18 per cent among girls. Asthma now accounts for 25% of school absences.
• Burning debris turns a natural resource into a health hazard
(CVRD, Fact Sheet No.1)

This is a selective list. If we take any one of the above points and explore the impacts locally, globally (some of these pollutants, of course, travel between countries), we can track the effects of toxic chemicals emitted from slash and backyard burning:

Nitrogen Dioxides contribute to acid rain, climate change, toxic chemical emissions may cause biological mutations, plus visibility impairment (US Environmental Protection Agency, http://www. epa. gov/oar/urbanair/nox/hlth. html).

Benzo-a-pyrene is a known carcinogen (Oregon Environmental Council, http://www. oeconline. org/).

Dioxins and Furans, (from pulp mill production), there are apparently 210 different dioxins and furans – all containing chlorine atoms.

One of the major problems with emissions is the particles emitted are tiny in size: less than 2.5 microns (about 30 times smaller than a human hair). They are commonly called PM 2.5 (Particulate Matter 2.5 microns or less). They enter and deeply penetrate the lungs of humans and animals, and even penetrate plants as well, without being seen. Much of the discussion, discourse, and research around slash and backyard burning is concerned with PM 2.5. It is important to note a good deal of the research associated with wood smoke burning, in all its forms, is emergent – much of it being done in the past few years.

Eleanor Setton, and a group of investigators at the University of Victoria, British Columbia undertook a study that monitored the PM 2.5 levels in various municipalities in the Capital Regional District reporting out in March 2007. Their research began with two fundamental questions:

1) How do PM2.5 levels vary among municipalities with different back yard burning bylaws?
2) What are typical levels of PM2.5 on allowed burn days, and how do these compare to non-burn days?

The research came to a number of conclusions:

• The burning bylaws adopted by different municipalities can have a measurable impact upon local air quality.
• Weather conditions can play an important part in how Particulate Matter is disbursed – “high winds potentially mitigate the impact” (18) [It should be noted that, of course, days with extremely high winds create conditions which make burning dangerous].
• Overnight, (burning is not allowed after dark) elevated levels from areas which burned during the day, “returned to background levels overnight…suggests back yard burning may impact local air quality for relatively short periods during active burning.” (5)
• “Short-term levels of PM2.5 can be substantially higher in areas where burning is allowed, particularly when restricted to several days per month, and suggest that a free branch drop-off program is effective in reducing backyard burning.” (BC Lung Association Workshop Presentation notes, page 5).

Although research at this level is emergent – investigators seem to have documented enough convincing evidence that we need to take heed about the negative effects of backyard burning.

Recent studies have found fine particulates can pose a greater danger to our health than the better-known kinds of air pollution, such as smog (ground-level ozone) and sulphur dioxide.


As we move to solutions, we are faced with issues surrounding costs and benefits – but we are also faced with a new form of accounting – total costs. These take into account, in a holistic manner, costs that are generated by environmental impacts – costs for health care, clean up, costs for transportation and manufacture, as well as utilization of machinery and fuels - costs normally not factored into the price of doing business. The solutions below begin a process that involves critical examination of these factors, but more importantly demands renewed energy for re-thinking and re-imagining how we live with what we take from, and what we leave in, our environment.

Industrial/Community Level

• Stump Grinders or Tub Grinders – especially important for returning carbon to the soil; stumps can also be factored into landscape architecture in new building projects.
• Industrial grade Chippers – important for the reduction of material to community or industrial compostable size. For example, mixing this material (except cedar) with cow manure can produce soil.
• Hornby Island, British Columbia has a community based tumble composter. Community-based composting builds soil and builds community.
• Provide community pick-up or drop-off for debris.
• Wood gasification furnaces – especially helpful for eradication of broom and diseased vegetation.

Individual/Personal/Domestic Level

So what do you do with blow down debris? There is a labour intensivity to this work some may shy away from. There is also a necessity that communities take account of those with disabilities or the infirmity of age and set up volunteer assistance programs.

• Kindling remains after the stripping. A chop-saw (occasionally a chain saw is necessary – both become noise irritants or pollutants on the level of leaf-blowers) can easily cut, what most would burn as slash, into kindling for heating our homes.
• Composting is the obvious choice for a good deal of yard material, especially if there is not a community facility. One reason for doing it at home is to return the carbon material to the land from which it came.
• Burming (not burning) – piling of sticks, branches, etc. can form great bird habitat for nesting. The contradictory issue is fire hazard with this option.


All these solutions assume some infrastructure.

• Education at all levels – School curriculum, local/regional pamphleting, etc.
• Bylaws –Education and Enforcement.
• Monies set into government budgets to urge new alternative approaches.
• Carbon load reduction monitoring:
o What’s the benefit of a slash pile not burned?
o What‘s the carbon load impact of machinery – chain saw, chop saw, chippers, grinders, etc. (gas and diesel fuels, electrical costs).

Recent studies have found that fine particulates can pose a greater danger to our health than the better-known kinds of air pollution, such as smog (ground-level ozone) and sulphur dioxide. Fine particulates are linked to numerous health problems — from a runny nose and coughing, to bronchitis, asthma and even death. In fact, new research in the United States suggests fine particulates are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths each year.

A 1993 study for the British Columbia Provincial Health Officer found exposure to fine particulates in wood smoke may be causing substantial illness and some deaths within the province. Fine particulates are also a visual blight, capable of reducing visibility so much that beautiful views are blotted out, and road and air travel is made difficult. Residential backyard burning is a significant source of airborne fine particulate matter. (‘Model Municipal Bylaw for Regulating Residential Backyard Burning’, Water, Air and Climate Change Branch, Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, 1997, Preface, 3).


Air Quality & Health Workshop, Border Air Quality Study. BC Lung Association, 5th Annual, Vancouver, BC. March 28, 2008.
Border Air Quality Study: Summary of Findings, March 2008: http://www. cher. ubc. ca/baqs
Cowichan Valley Regional District, http://www. CVRDrecycles. bc. ca (Fact Sheets 1-3).
Government of Canada Website, http://www. hc-sc. gc. ca/iyh-vsv/environ/dioxin_e. html
Illich, Ivan. Energy and Equity. London, Calder & Boyars, 1974.
Oregon Environmental Council, http://www. oeconline. org
Setton, E. et al, Monitoring of Fine Particulate Matter Associated with Back Yard Burning in the Capital Regional District: A Comparison of Municipalities with Different Burning Bylaws, University of Victoria Spatial Sciences Research Lab.
US Environmental Protection Agency, http://www. epa. gov/oar/urbanair/nox/hlth. html

Gordon Bailey has recently retired after teaching Sociology for 18 years at Capilano College in North Vancouver. He has a Ph. D. from the University of Oregon. He has published two books, a number of articles and reviews. Gordon lives with his wife and partner, Sue, on Pender Island, Canada.

Via:www.greenmuze. соm

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